Lumet’s Commitment to Ripple Effect

Times Arts Editor

Sidney Lumet, an actor’s son who became a child actor himself and stayed with the profession until it became clear his future was as a film maker, has done his strongest work looking deeply and sympathetically at characters under duress.

Like most directors, Lumet has had to do a bit of everything, from “Murder on the Orient Express” to the musical “The Wiz.” But the most memorable films deal with men or women in collision with society for one reason or another--their own failings or society’s.

The tradition began with his first feature, “Twelve Angry Men,” with Henry Fonda as an embattled juror struggling to see truth served. Peter Finch, as the furious anchorman in “Network,” was distressed to the breaking point by everything that bugged him on and off television. Paul Newman in “The Verdict” was a booze-soaked lawyer fighting to win back his self-respect and correct an injustice along the way.

Lumet’s new film, “Running on Empty,” from a very fine script by Naomi Foner, is one of his most affecting--a suspenseful story about two ‘60s radicals who have been raising two sons while in flight from the FBI for the bombing of a napalm factory.


“The producers, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne, saw a small item in the New York Times about a brilliant high school kid whose parents were suddenly arrested by the FBI,” Lumet said during a quick visit to Los Angeles recently. “They discussed the idea with Naomi Foner, who had had some contacts with ‘60s radicals. The script is entirely fictional, but it had that inspiration in reality.”

Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti, who play the parents, and River Phoenix and Jonas Abry, who play the boys, are attractive and sympathetic. But “Running on Empty” is not a film of advocacy or militancy.

“I don’t deny the politics of the movie for a minute,” Lumet says. “But it’s also about the cost that passionate commitment extracts from areas the committed couldn’t foresee. It’s the stone hitting the pond and the ripples moving out. But it’s even more self-perpetuating than that: Stones bounce out from the original stone.”

The parents have not surrendered their belief that the Vietnam conflict was wrong. For her the war is over and therefore the battle has been won. He can’t let go, finding other wars (as against pollution and poverty) to fight. But the movie is about letting go: letting go of children who have to have their own lives, letting go of postures that have become a kind of playacting.


“Running on Empty” has one of the most wrenching scenes of any film in recent memory: a confrontation in a fashionable Manhattan restaurant between Lahti and Steven Hill as the father she hasn’t seen or been able to contact for a decade or more. Neither voice is raised but the awareness of suppressed emotions is overpowering.

“We shot the scene in the morning and it was done by 11,” Lumet says. “I couldn’t have borne it if we’d had to do it longer. When we were editing, we’d high-speed past that scene; it got to us so.”

Knowing that it would be potent the first time around, Lumet used two cameras and the emotional flow had to be interrupted only twice.

Lahti was the first person Lumet cast for “Running on Empty,” because, he says, “so much of the script needed to be underplayed, and if you’re going to do that the actress needs a power of implication, which Christine has. You’ve got to be full, and give a sense of something withheld.”


Against the theory that all the spontaneity is in the first take of a scene, Lumet believes in a lot of rehearsing. “River (Phoenix) hadn’t rehearsed much before and he said, ‘I’ll use up the spontaneity.’ But I always say, and told him, ‘You won’t; you’ll have more.’

“If you’ve rehearsed, all distraction goes out the window. When you don’t have the character, you’re concentrating on fitting the moment into the whole. I’ve seen really good actors on location lose their concentration when a semi thunders by.”

On the other hand, Al Pacino, well rehearsed for a soliloquy in “Dog Day Afternoon,” was unfazed when a news helicopter flew very low over the scene. “He looked up, spread his arms and yelled, ‘Attica!’ Right in character. Another actor might have said, ‘Sidney, what’s going on here?’ ”

For Lumet, young River Phoenix, who turned 18 the other day, has “the irreplaceable thing that Henry Fonda had; he’s incapable of doing anything false.” The child of flower generation parents who lived communally in several different places but for religious rather than political reasons, Phoenix (who was performing on street corners for pennies when he was 5) had no trouble identifying with the boy in “Running on Empty.”


Lumet has successfully filmed many plays, including “Equus,” because, he says, he is obsessed by the power and importance of good writing. He has also proved to be adept at thrillers (“The Anderson Tapes,” “The Deadly Game,” “The Morning After”).

But at this point, says Lumet, “I want to do gentle, unexploitive movies.” (“Running on Empty” qualifies as a gentle, unexploitive movie.) Looking around at much of the fare in the marketplace, he says, “Enough already.”